Archive for February, 2014

February 1, 2014

On Langston Hughes

It is fitting that February is African American History month as February 1st is the birthday of the esteemed poet, Langston Hughes. Students across the country in various grade levels will be reading such works as Harlem, The Weary Blues, and The Negro Speaks of Rivers as the obligatory nod towards the progress of civil rights, as though now that literary pedagogy recognizes black authors for a month, deceased for half a century and nearly a century past the height of their writing, we’ve reached the pinnacle of racial equality. News flash: we haven’t yet.

Though Langston Hughes may be the easily packaged totem, the go-to African American History literary lesson, it is not a denigration of his literary talent or his racial importance. And, despite the “antiquity” of his writing in a culture that uses Snapchat, he should be taught as the seminal figure he is. It is merely disappointing that the bulk of this month’s curriculum will only focus on a movement last less than two decades and ended eighty years ago, rather than the whole of African American literature.

But today is Langston Hughes’ birthday; were he still alive he’d be 112. He was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the literary time period associated with the rise of jazz, black literature, and a black middle class. I mentioned his three most popular poems, at least among Caucasian middle class educators, but he was also a literary critic, essayist, and playwright. While others can provide better historical and literary analysis, his writing has impacted my life.

Reading Langston Hughes in high school was the first time I remember realizing that good writing is integrally tied to life. Though I did not live in the 1930s, either in Harlem tenements or the Georgian sharecropper’s shack, their days were shared with me, not just as action, but concerns and joys, sorrows and loves. Paying rent by day and feverishly dancing by night. He laid bare before me the hypocritical and gnostic tendencies of American Christianity. In anger, in joy, in tears, and in laughter, Hughes’ poetry gave flesh to the intellectual struggles of inequality, racial and economic. It was art, generally perceived as emotive and evocative, but it was physical and grounded.

Langston Hughes served as a chronological bridge between me and the next writer I would become infatuated with, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Hughes’ writing, placing equal balance between technical skill and intellectual message, was in line with Dostoyevsky’s. Through their writing, both exemplified the same central tenant: that what you think about the world directs your interactions with the world, so you need to be precise in your thinking. Your thoughts do not stay in your head; they enact themselves in your life. While they thought very different things about the world, that they held to this tenant gives their writing greater significance and longevity.

The importance of precise thought, particularly in regards to one’s own racial identity, is seen most acutely in the essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. In it, he confronts the black artist who seeks to write, not as a black poet, just as a poet. Hughes recognizes that there is nothing wrong in writing something that anyone can enjoy, but danger lies in sterilizing one’s own voice and identity. If writing is an expression of thought, and your thought is disembodied from your existence, then your writing will not be tied to your existence. If your thought denigrates your own physical existence, how can your writing be a positive force in a physical world? To Hughes, it cannot.

Langston Hughes is my life’s literary linchpin. His was the major literary voice inspiring me to write poetry in high school, which caused me, before I had declared a major, to take more English classes at community college. Those classes were what caused me to declare myself an English Major; without Hughes I don’t know Dostoyevsky or Dante, Hemingway or Herbert. It was his voice that drew me to Dr. Christina Bieber’s African American Literature class and exposed me to Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Without that African American literature class, I would have kept the pseudo-Christian, gnostic thought to which I held. Without my English degree, I wouldn’t have sought a career in publishing. Without my job, I wouldn’t know many who have challenged and encouraged my writing.

Though I rarely write poetry anymore, though I work at publisher that does nothing with poetry, I would not be who and where I am without Langston Hughes’ writing. I needed to pay homage to this man who has inspired and influenced my life. I’m not going to end with a poem which neatly ties together what I’ve written, but just one that I hold dear: I, Too.